Longfellow: Father of Historical Fiction
(an article by Jane Bailey Bain)
By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis….
In 1854, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his diary, “I have at length hit upon a plan for a poem on the American Indians… It is to weave together their beautiful traditions as whole.” What he produced next year was ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ a long narrative poem about a legendary Iroquois chief. Longfellow’s epic work is a composite of myth and legend, folklore and ethnography. It is written in unrhymed alliterative verse, with heavy emphasis on alternating syllables: considered by some to be clumsy, it nonetheless suits his meandering style.
Longfellow’s work was based partly on the writings of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a government agent who married a Native wife and took a personal interest in local customs and stories. In particular he took the name of his hero, who has very little else in common with the sixteenth-century Mohawk chief who co-founded the Iroquois League. In his notes to the poem, Longfellow cites Schoolcraft as his source for “a tradition prevalent among the North American Indians, of a personage of miraculous birth, who was sent among them to clear their rivers, forests, and fishing-grounds, and to teach them the arts of peace. He was known among different tribes by several names (including) Hiawatha.” Read the rest of this entry »
At first, when they found that they were denied passage through inhabited lands, the Hebrews avoided confrontation by prudently skirting these areas. But as they grew in strength and numbers, they began to fight those who would not allow them to pass through peaceably. As they had God on their side, they invariably won these battles, whereupon they took possession of the lands and slaughtered the inhabitants, sparing only the virgins for their own personal use. Of course, they were careful to purify the girls before using them, lest the Hebrew men be defiled. No doubt the maidens felt highly honored to be made use of by such fastidious men.
When they reached Moab, near Jericho, the King of the Moabites worried that his country would be overrun in turn, so he summoned Balaam the seer, offering him honors and rewards to put a curse on the Hebrews so that they could be driven away. After much coy hesitation—possibly designed to drive his price up—Balaam agreed to meet with the king but he made no promises, for he’d heard that the Hebrews had been blessed by a very powerful god.
Balaam climbed on his ass and set out for Moab, but the ass startled him with an assortment of uncharacteristic antics, bolting off the path, squashing up against a wall—crushing Balaam’s foot in the process—and most inconveniently falling down flat on the ground under him.
Balaam’s beatings elicited an unexpected response from the ass. “Hey, don’t blame me! An angel made me do it,” she said.
“An angel,” scoffed Balaam. “I doubt it.” Read the rest of this entry »
(an article by Richard Denning)
The Norse and Anglo Saxons looked at the world in a way very different to the mythology that was developed by the Greeks and Romans. Most of the constellations in our night sky have derived their modern names from the Greek myths. Yet the ancestors of those of us from England and Scandinavia had totally different names for the shapes formed by the stars above us. The English kept only very scanty written records before they converted to Christianity and at the same time came into greater contact with the Roman Catholic world. That world changed dramatically many aspects of our culture and this applies to the stars as to other areas of life. Thus by the time the English are writing things down in Alfred the Great’s era, they had abandoned the former names and stories. The Norse- Viking world is different. Written documents survive in greater numbers and because the Norse peoples did not convert until much later (even as late as the 12th century) their names for stars and constellations survive. The English shared a common mythology so we can assume that these same names – or very similar is what the English also used. Read the rest of this entry »
THE GIRL AND THE GODDESS
(This is a reprint of an article by Jane Bailey Bain, on her website.)
Brigid was a slip of a girl with a mass of red-gold curls. It drove the nuns wild, that hair, for however much they combed it sprang back into a cloud. The girl ran wild too, although she had such a sweet nature none could not be cross with her for long. Not that she was often around to be told off. Brigid loved to be outside: she would slip out of the convent and dance barefoot through the long grass in a manner not becoming to a novice nun. She was a problem, that was for sure: daughter of a serving maid by her master, only their Christian charity had given her a home. The lord Dubhthach was said to be a wizard, one of the old faith who knew more than was right of mystery and magic. At least her mother had been baptised by the good Saint Patrick himself. Read the rest of this entry »
(This is a reprint of an article by Jane Bailey Bain, on her website. Jane is an author and anthropologist, currently teaching mythology in West London.)
In northern Europe, children put their shoes neatly by the door last night. If they have been good this year, St Nicholas fills them with sweets and toys; if not, they will find a lump of coal and a hard stick. For others, he will come on Christmas Eve, soaring through the night sky in a flying sledge. Many centuries ago Nicholas lived in Patara, in modern Anatolia. His father was a rich merchant and left a fortune to his only son. But why did he start leaving gifts in this way?…
… It had been a good night. The wine was sweet and the barmaids obliging. Nick staggered slightly as he stepped into the street. A full moon hung low above the rooftops. The cool air was welcomely refreshing. Nick waved away the servant who stood waiting and set off alone through the quiet streets.His way passed through a poorer part of town. He stumbled on the rough ground and bumped against a wall. As he steadied himself, he heard a girl’s voice from the window high above.
“That’s all I really want….” Without thinking, Nick paused to listen. What women really want: that would be good for a young man to know!
Another girl answered, speaking softly. “Three gold coins! Father will never find so much for each of us. And unless you have a dowry, his family will not let him marry you.”
A third voice chimed in. “There’s only one way for girls like us to make money.”
“And he would never want me after that…” The first voice dissolved in tears. Read the rest of this entry »
(An Article by Max Overton)
I was sitting on the sofa one evening, coffee in hand, watching the BBC documentary series “Tribe” (“Going Tribal” in the USA). If you’ve never seen this series, a Royal Marine named Bruce Parry visits remote tribes around the world and spends a month living and interacting with tribal members. He eats their food, sleeps in their huts, joins in their rituals, and often forms close personal bonds with individuals. On this particular evening, he was living with the Adi tribe of the Himalayas. They are animists, worshipping the sun, moon and spirits of nature, though Christian missionaries have recently invaded the region, subverting their beliefs.
My wife Julie and I discussed the program and Julie wondered what the people of the tribe thought of this strange Christian religion when it was first introduced. I took it one stage further and wondered what the gods of this tribe thought of Christianity. An idea was born that evolved into Rakshasa, the first of my ‘Demon’ series.
I set my story in the mountainous Indian state of Uttarakhand for several reasons, not least of all because I have ties to the area. My maternal ancestors have lived in India since the late 1700s and frequented the foothills of the Himalayas and the hot dusty plains at their feet. My grandmother and mother were born in Allahabad, and I was told many stories of their experiences there. Some of their stories have made their way into Rakshasa and have lifted parts of the book (in my mind at least) from pure fiction to family history. Naturally, every part of the book has been thoroughly researched, right down to the finer details.
Rakshas are fierce, horrific creatures from Hindu mythology. When I first thought about using one of these demons as my ‘hero’ I wondered if it could be done. After all, they’re evil and kill people! I know, Dexter Morgan does it in Miami and he’s very popular, but demons don’t just kill guilty people – they feast on men, women and children whose only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Demons don’t have much of a choice though – it’s what they do. They were created to prey on humans and a raksha who kills cannot really be held accountable – or can he? What if the demon decided he didn’t want to be a demon? Could he change his nature? Would that make him more likeable? Read the rest of this entry »